Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Sleepy Hollow (1999) movie poster

director Tim Burton
viewed: 09/11/2015

Back in 1999, I still had high hopes for director Tim Burton.  His awesome art designs hadn’t yet become redundant and he had made a number of really interesting films.  So Burton taking on the Gothic horror film in the style of a classic Hammer horror film, that seemed cool.  And Johnny Depp hadn’t yet become the megastar that he would a couple years later.  And Christina Ricci, I liked (and still like) Christina Ricci.

But this might be the turning point for Burton.  More concretely, it would be in his follow-up to this, 2001’s Planet of the Apes, but I think that this was the first of his films that I actively didn’t like.

Watching it again years later, and now, with my 11 year old daughter, I think I appreciated it a bit more.  It still lacks something really compelling, but Depp keeps it interesting, and some of the things that nagged at me (the sweetly enchanted visions of good witches in flashbacks) nag perhaps a little less pervasively.  It is far more a Tim Burton flick than any true Hammer throwback.

Clara enjoyed it pretty well.  Though as a horror film, it’s also not scary.

Addams Family Values (1993)

Addams Family Values (1993) movie poster

director Barry Sonnenfeld
viewed: 11/03/2014

As I recalled it from back in ye olde earlie nineties, the two Addams Family movies by cinematographer turned director Barry Sonenfeld were both quite good.  I did recall that Addams Family Values (1993) turned out to be better than The Addams Family (1991), but I thought they were both pretty good.

Now, I grew up watching the television show The Addams Family, preferring it to its more popular comparison point, The Munsters.  I also grew up with Charles Addams’ original cartoons, a strange anomaly of life that my dad, who had no other book of cartoons to his name, had Homebodies and loved it.  So, you can consider me both predisposed and also possibly quite cynical about new interpretations of the roles so well-cast and played on television in the 1960’s.

Oddly enough, the kids and I started to watch The Addams Family the other day, but ran out of time and thought to come back to it.  When we tried to come back to it, we were having trouble getting the thing to play on Netflix streaming and so I suggested watching the sequel instead.  We had made it about halfway through the 1991 movie and to be honest, I was thinking outside of Christina Ricci and Raúl Juliá and Anjelica Huston, it was kind of dire.

But you know, beating the odds as a sequel improving on its predecessor, Addams Family Values is hands down (that means you, Thing!) way better of a movie.  It’s just tons funnier, sharper, and more timely.

Juliá and Huston are great as Gomez and Morticia Addams.  I always loved John Astin and Carolyn Jones and it’s hard to imagine improving on Jones’s sultry slender beauty, but Huston has her own je ne sais quoi and Juliá is as well cast a new Gomez as you could hope for.  The real coup though is Ricci.  She gets the best lines and deadpans like a maestro.  Almost every line she delivers had the kids in stitches.

The other real coup is the cultural critique and skewering of “family values”.  I can’t quite place it at the moment, but I recall it from the time but the issue of “family values” in the George H.W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton election cycle of 1992 was a catchphrase for the time, a politicized interpretation of American character and ideals and while the title Addams Family Values rather pointedly demonstrates, there are a lot of different families in the world and values vary with them.

Really it’s Paul Rudnick’s script that should get the nod here.  The two main tropes of story in the film involve the fantastic (possibly never better) Joan Cusack as the blond-wigged black widow who comes to the Addamses as a nanny for their newborn (and mustachioed babe Pubert) but is really after Uncle Fester (Chistopher Lloyd) and his money.  It’s her seeking to break up the family for her own interests that she ships Puglsey and Wednesday to Camp Chippewa, the insanely smug and callowly chipper summer camp which leads to many of the film’s best gags and sequences.

There are lots of great lines and jokes throughout the film, and I’ll tell you both Felix and Clara thought the film was hilarious.  But one thing I really like is how at the end that as Cusack is trying to electrocute the whole family while explaining how misunderstood she is, how the Addamses all wholly empathize with her, identify with her evil nature (albeit this is part of the joke of the Addamses).  It’s an ironical commentary on social values, the Addamses are truly empathetic with genuine family values and priorities, while completely and utterly outside of that dialog in the politics of the day that gave the title to the film.

I imagine that the kids will want to go back and finish watching the first film, but I tell you, I almost could do without the first one altogether.  Addams Family Values is really, seriously funny.

Monster (2003)

Monster (2003) movie poster

director Patty Jenkins
viewed: 01/27/2012

Over the past five years, since I watched the documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) and have since seen a number of television documentaries dedicated to her, Aileen Wuornos has become a more and more tragic figure to my mind.  I never felt that attracted to seeing the big Hollywood version of her life, the movie, Monster, which brought actress Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos.  But as her story continued to eat at me, as it still does, I became more curious and interested in the adaptation.

Writer/director Patty Jenkins clearly empathizes with Wuornos, but her take on Aileen’s story is focused on the last couple of years of her life, most particularly on her lesbian love affair that arguably brought Wuornos some long-desired but rarely glimpsed love and happiness.  It’s a love story at its core, but strangely and significantly, Wuornos’ real life lover, Tyria Moore, is recreated as “Selby Wall”, a girl with a story not entirely unlike Moore’s but doubtlessly different from Moore’s.  It’s always strange when films, “based on a true story” find such significant breaks with their bases, and certainly much fiction is embedded in any retelling of any story.  It’s not so much that it flouts the truth of her story but that it flouts what is at its core, the “truth” of Jenkins’s story.

However, something much more pointed and impossible to ignore really nagged at me: the “ugly” make-up that was plastered on the very beautiful Charlize Theron to make her resemble Wuornos.  Let’s keep in mind that this film is titled, “Monster”, more of an ironic point about Wuornos’s murder spree than her physical appearance.  However, I kept looking at Theron-as-Wuornos and kept staring at her face.  Theron put on some 40 pounds to play her (fair enough), but the make-up started with age spots and receding hair to a strange “lack” of eyebrows, and ultimately finished with some horrible fake teeth.  Now to some, this was part of the power of the film, to place a beautiful South African actress into a “costume” so unlike herself to give her over to a total character.  But the thing is it seems like they made her as ugly as they could, a “monster” of sorts, with her somewhat repulsive visage.

Wuornos, at the time of her murders was about 33 years old, while many of the images of her are from her last years in prison, up until her execution at 46.  She had the roughest, most brutal of lives, aged well beyond her years, but she was not an ugly woman, probably even less so during her brief reign of terror.  And it’s not so much that I’m trying to defend her physical beauty but rather to decry her rather extreme ugliness as portrayed in the film.  This is perhaps highlighted even further in that her cinematic lover is Christina Ricci, who wears only a bad haircut and baggy clothes as her paramour.  The actual Tyria Moore was nowhere as cute at Ricci.

This focus on physicality is at the heart of the film in which a beautiful actress makes herself ugly to step into such a role.  I don’t mean to take anything away from Theron, per se, her ability to mimic Wuornos’s speech and tonality, the way she holds herself and moves, all that feed into her performance are all her own.  And it’s good.

The real story behind Wuornos, a girl horribly abused from childhood, abandoned by a child-predator of a father and her mother, kicked out from her grandparents house when she became pregnant at 14, a girl who began trading sex for money or favors before she was a teen, is so incredibly sad and brutal that it’s stunning.  None of these facts justify her crimes, with the possible exception of her first murder which was likely in defending herself against a rape, but they do indeed speak to an understanding of a human being who the world would come to think of as “a monster.”

Where Jenkins seeks redemption for Wuornos in her failed love affair, she abandons Wuornos on other levels.  The love affair is a compelling one, a flawed relationship of two people “in need” as much as “in love,” a relationship doomed to failure through poverty, mental illness, addiction, and tragedy.

Physicality is foregrounded by the nature of the make-up and the transformation made for the role.  A “monster” is ugly somewhat by definition, either physically or by the nature of the beast itself.  Wuornos’ crimes were monstrous, surely, but was not her entire life monstrous?  Her beaten-down appearance by hard life and hard living corrupted her physically and mentally.  But in many ways, the film denies her beauty, a more transcendent beauty as well as a literal one.

After.Life

After.Life (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
viewed: 08/03/10

Girl dies.  Wakes up in funeral home.  Mortician tells her she is dead.  Girl has tough time believing that.  Mortician tells her that he has a “gift” that lets him talk to the newly dead to help them with their transition.  Girl isn’t sure she believes him.  Fun ensues.

Well, all but the “Fun ensues” part.

After.Life is a kind of boring would-be thriller in which most of the above happens.  The girl is Christina Ricci, a schoolteacher who is somewhat out of her element in life (until she dies in a car crash — and then she’s really out of her element…and out of life).  Liam Neeson is the mortician, riding the line between benign humanity and vague creepiness.  And the drama also rides a line between whether she is dead or she’s being held captive by a psychopathic mortician who just likes screwing with people and then burying them alive.

Either angle could potentially have made for a decent film.  But written and directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, the whole thing is tepid even in its best moments.  And at its worst, is just flat-out boring.

I was set to mind recalling an image in a book that I had as a kid about “zombie movies” or something (believe me, I’d love to find a copy of this book if I could remember what it was called) that had a picture of a guy with a naked girl laying on top of a casket with some odd small object on her stomach.  The caption of the photo was “so-and-so tries to make a naked girl interesting”.  And I always assumed the joke was that naked girls were inherently interesting, yet that movie was so bad that the guy was failing.

Well, Christina Ricci spends much of the latter third of this film on a morgue table stark naked and I can tell you that Wojtowicz-Vosloo faced this same challenge and lost.  The film isn’t helped by its coy nature, trying to have a thriller that goes both ways.  Because if Neeson is telling the truth, then it’s sort of more a psychological or metaphysical sort of thing and he’s potentially a kind man.  But if he’s lying and is crazy then it’s pretty weird and scary.  But it’s neither.  But is it neither because it’s both?

Eh.  Anyway, this film ain’t what it’s trying to be cracked up to be.

And I could do without seeing Justin Long (who plays her bereaving boyfriend) in a movie ever again.

Speed Racer

Speed Racer (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
viewed: 05/17/08 at the Fremont Theater, San Luis Obispo, CA

At first, I thought I was going to end up seeing this film with my son, who had shown avid interest during previews, but then it’s long length, bad reviews, and loss of notice by my son (who is far more excited about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Kung Fu Panda (2008), and WALL-E (2008)), I figured that I wasn’t going to have to watch Speed Racer.  But then, on vacation in San Luis Obispo, seeing the Speed Racer was playing at the fabulous Fremont Theater, I decided “what the heck?”

The Fremont is a beautiful theater, the last Art Deco style cinema built on the West Coast, it is a truly fanatastic place to see movies.  From its amazing nightly neon facade, to its gorgeous stylishly glowing interior, it’s one of the nicest cinemas that I have ever been in.  While we have the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, a couple of our other excellent movie palaces have been repurposed in my time there, namely the Alhambra and the Alexandria.  It’s still something much much more to see a film in a theater like this than in any other place in which I have seen films.  And so, I figured, it didn’t ever really matter what movie I went to see…even the highly-panned Speed Racer.

Well, it’s not as bad as all that.  I mean, there are flashes that are deeply groan-inducing and it’s nothing to be excited about, but I oddly found it entertaining, even enough to say that I kind of enjoyed it.

More than anything, the film is perhaps literal eye candy.  Shot almost entirely if not exclusively on green screen, every frame of the film is either saturated, out-and-out manipulated and designed, or utterly and completely rendered by digital artists and designers.  And it’s quite dazzling a lot of the time.  It’s psychedelia, influenced highly by anime, but far more borne of the full-on digital aesthetics, something fresh and flashy.  And its use of color reminded me of films like Dick Tracy (1990) and Super Mario Bros. (1993), both of which also suffered from the real actors against a hyper-cartoon aesthetic.

Of course, there is a story here below the facade.  And human actors.  Largely, though, the actors seem to have been chosen for their ability to become cartoons themselves, and Christina Ricci is perhaps the most uber cartoonish-looking of the cast, which includes people like Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Emile Hirsch, too.  Mostly, it’s a little unclear what beyond visual aesthetics drove any of the choices for the film.

The brothers use an enormous amount of narrative cross-cutting, chopping into the action left and right to give the sensibility that perhaps the cartoon from which this film was adapted once utilized, I don’t know.  It’s part of the visuals as well as the narrative technique, with foregrounded close-ups tracking slowly across the screen while other action takes place behind it.  It’s an interesting or at least fun aesthetic.  However, it detracts from the out-and-out excitement of the car chases and car battles for any real pulse-pounding adventure.

Some of the kicks and scenes and sequences are more fun and entertaining than others.  Among the criticisms I’ve read are about how the only people who could enjoy this film are little boys.  I actually do think that Felix would enjoy it, but he’ll have to do it on DVD.  I liked it enough, but I am not going to sit through it a second time.

One of the critiques I’ve also read is the main discourse of the film is that about the evil corporation against the individual and the small family-run business and the general hypocrisy that lies within such a critique in a film funded by corporations with tie-ins and marketing driven by others.  And while that’s true, I think that the directorial brothers are frequently on the side of faux and shallow idealism.

Ah, but whatever.  It was more fun than I thought it would be.  Don’t take that as a recommendation, mind you.  Maybe I was just in a good mood.

Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Craig Brewer
viewed: 02/02/08

I don’t know why, but I kept wanting to see this film, even though I knew it wasn’t going to be very good.  I’ve always like Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson is usually entertaining, but it didn’t get that good of reviews.  Writer/director Craig Brewer, who made his name with his earlier effort, Hustle & Flow (2005), comes up with an idea that is titilating, but ultimately lacks believability, though it still has a bit of a kick to it.

Let’s put the plot this way: it’s about an African American small town farmer/blues musician who stumbles on the beaten and half-dead scantily-clad body of Christina Ricci and decides to help cure her of her ills (she’s got a chest infection and nymphomania) by chaining her to his radiator.  I kept wishing that this film had been made by Russ Meyers or John Waters.

Ricci is actually not too bad in the film as the abused town slut, whose boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, heads off for the military, but can’t hack it because of his anxiety and weak stomach.  Jackson is okay, but the good-hearted spirituality and kindness of characters from opposite sides of town culture healing each other…it’s kinda lame.

Still, Ricci in a half-cut t-shirt and undies only, chained to the radiator with a big loop and lock around her middle is sort of the thing that makes this amusing.  It’s would-be exploitation, toying with the shocking, but really not being shocking.  And the blues.  We get the blues, too.  The healing power of the blues.

Ricci spends a lot of time half-nude or semi-nude.  She started out as a child actress and as she reached her early adulthood was appreciated for her curves.  She’s a small woman.  But then she went through some eating disorders and became rail-thin.  Here, her body is on total display.  Definitely very skinny.  Her body, her dress (or lack thereof) is one of the big points of the story.  She is the slut, defined by her wardrobe and hair.  There is something here to be said about body issues, but I don’t know exactly what.  She’s a skinny little thing.

Like I said, this might have worked as exploitation.  For it to work dramatically, it would need a better script and better direction.  It’s pretty lame in that respect.

Cursed

Cursed (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Wes Craven
viewed: 07/28/06

Wes Craven isn’t all that interesting of a director, despite having a rather mixed catalog of career highs and lows.  His more notable work I haven’t re-seen in years and am now only more familiar with some of his more recent films.  I think that he made his name with some reasonable horror titles, probably most prominently with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which, like so many horror films, would probably seem even better if it hadn’t spawned a franchise of worse and worse versions.  His later hits with his Scream series, in which he seemed to solidify his poppy, shallow understanding of a more post-modern horror film, degraded significantly as well.  I don’t know if I would place him up there with John Carpenter or George A. Romero, who I do think actually made some excellent films.

Cursed is his latest venture in working with Kevin Williamson, with whom he worked on Scream (1996) and it’s sequels, and it’s a werewolf film with Christina Ricci, who I still have a soft spot for even though it seems that her best work is behind her.  Based on what I’ve read, this film had a pretty rough time getting made and like a lot of bad films, had a hard time getting released as well.

Overall, it’s crap, but not terrible, terrible crap.  It’s bad but enjoyable if you like these kind of things.  There seems to be a little weird attempts at post-modernist commentary again, though Craven and Williamson don’t really approach it in a significant way, more like tips of the hat in a wax museum to more classic fare, and also this weird usage of Craig Kilborn and Scott Baio.  Yes, Scott Baio.  It’s like “Wow, is this the first movie that Scott Baio has made since Zapped! (1982) ?” Kilborn and Baio play themselves for some reason.  It seems utterly superfluous to the film, kind of like some weird cameo guest spot you might see on a TV show or something.

I don’t want to give it all away, but I was thinking of the title of Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985) and was thinking how sweet would it be to have Cursed II: Scott Baio is a Werewolf.  So, you can imagine my disappointment when he just disappeared from the narrative and didn’t turn out to be the granddaddy of the werewolves.

Prozac Nation

Prozac Nation (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg
viewed: 06/03/06

This movie is bad.

Years ago, in an undergraduate screenwriting class, I noted that one of the most lame ideas is writing a story about a person’s first year in college. It’s often a revelatory time for people, but it’s often generic, despite seeming otherwise, and is deluded with narcissism, as frequently young people are when first released on their own recognizance from the homes of their families and into the world of “college”.

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s version of her first year in college are definitely a little more extreme, peppered with her Rolling Stone-published writing to her incredibly unlikeable selfishness. But ultimately it’s nothing more than a coming-of-age story featuring a lot of blame on her parents and ultimately mixed resolution at the hands of therapy and pharmaceuticals. But some of it is just plain commonplace. Getting laid, getting drunk/stoned, falling in love…who DIDN’T do that their first year in college?

The big question is whether Wurtzel is mentally ill or just a self-centered sociopath. Is that her personality or is that only because she is sick? I guess that the film attempts to ask this question toward the end as she feels her identity changing under the influence of Prozac and though she is a nicer person, she isn’t sure she likes not feeling “herself”.

I don’t know if this source material could have been shaped better. The movie is crap, unsophisticated direction and some intense emoting verge this into comedy territory. Are we supposed to like the protagonist?

Christina Ricci was briefly one of the more interesting young actresses with films like The Ice Storm (1997), Buffalo ’66 (1998), The Opposite of Sex (1998), and Pecker (1998). She was praised for her voluptuous figure, in opposition to the typically anorexic Hollywood actresses, but then ended up losing all her weight and looking very strange. This is not one of her better films.